THE SUPREME COURT
The Supreme Court is the highest court of the United States, and the only one specifically created by the Constitution. A decision of the Supreme Court cannot be appealed to any other court. Congress has the power to fix the number of judges sitting on the Court and, within limits, decide what kind of cases it may hear, but it cannot change the powers given to the Supreme Court by the Constitution itself.
The Constitution is silent on the qualifications for judges. There is no requirement that judges be lawyers, although, in fact, all federal judges and Supreme Court justices have been members of the bar.
Since the creation of the Supreme Court almost 200 years ago, there have been slightly more than 100 justices. The original Court consisted of a chief justice and five associate justices. For the next 80 years, the number of justices varied until, in 1869, the complement was fixed at one chief justice and eight associates. The chief justice is the executive officer of the Court but, in deciding cases, has only one vote, as do the associate justices.
The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in only two kinds of cases: those involving foreign dignitaries and those in which a state is a party. All other cases reach the Court on appeal from lower courts.
Of the several thousand cases filed annually, the Court usually hears only about 150. Most of the cases involve interpretation of the law or of the intent of Congress in passing a piece of legislation. A significant amount of the work of the Supreme Court, however, consists of determining whether legislation or executive acts conform to the Constitution. This power of judicial review is not specifically provided for by the Constitution. Rather, it is doctrine inferred by the Court from its reading of the Constitution, and forcefully stated in the landmark Marbury vs. Madison case of 1803. In its decision in that case, the Court held that "a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law," and further observed that "it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." The doctrine has also been extended to cover the activities of state and local governments.
Decisions of the Court need not be unanimous; a simple majority prevails, provided at least six justices—the legal quorum—participate in the decision. In split decisions, the Court usually issues a majority and a minority—or dissenting—opinion, both of which may form the basis for future decisions by the Court. Often justices will write separate concurring opinions when they agree with a decision, but for reasons other than those cited by the majority.
COURTS OF APPEALS AND DISTRICT COURTS
The second highest level of the federal judiciary is made up of the courts of appeals, created in 1891 to facilitate the disposition of cases and ease the burden on the Supreme Court. The United States is divided into 11 separate appeals regions, each served by a court of appeals with from three to 15 sitting judges.
The courts of appeals review decisions of the district courts (trial courts with federal jurisdiction) within their areas. They are also empowered to review orders of the independent regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, in cases where the internal review mechanisms of the agencies have been exhausted and there still exists substantial disagreement over legal points.
Below the courts of appeals are the district courts. The 50 states are divided into 89 districts so that litigants may have a trial within easy reach. Additionally, there is one in the District of Columbia and one in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, not a state of the union, but part of the United States. From one to 27 judges sit in each of the district courts. Depending on case load, a judge from one district may temp!) rarity sit in another district. Congress fixes the boundaries of the districts according to population, size and volume of work. Some of the smaller states constitute a district by themselves. while the larger states, such as New York, California and Texas, have four districts each.
Except in the District of Columbia, judges must be residents of the district in which they permanently serve. District courts hold their sessions at periodic intervals in different cities of the district.
Most cases and controversies heard by these courts involve federal offenses such as misuse of the mails, theft of federal property, and violations of pure food, banking and counterfeiting laws. These are the only federal courts where grand juries indict those accused of crimes, and juries decide the cases.
In addition to the federal courts of general jurisdiction, it has been necessary from time to time to set up courts for special purposes. These are known as "legislative" courts because they were created by congressional action. Judges in these courts, like their peers in other federal courts, are appointed for life terms by the president, with Senate approval.
Perhaps the most important of these special courts is the Court of Claims, established in 1855 to render judgment on monetary claims against the United States. Other special courts include the Customs Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over civil actions involving taxes or quotas on imported goods, and the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals which hears appellate motions from decisions of the Customs Court and the U.S. Patent Office.
Although the Constitution has changed in many aspects since it was first adopted, its basic principles remain the same now as in 1789:
— The three main branches of government are separate and distinct from one another. The powers given to each are delicately balanced by the powers of the other two. Each branch serves as a check on potential excesses of the others.
— The Constitution, together with laws passed according to its provisions, and treaties entered into by the president and approved by the Senate, stands above all other laws, executive acts and regulations.
— All persons are equal before the law and are equally entitled to its protection. All states are equal, and none can receive special treatment from the federal government. Within
the limits of the Constitution, each state must recognize and respect the laws of the others. State governments, like the federal government, must be democratic in form, with final authority resting with the people.
— The people have the right to change their form of national government by legal means defined in the Constitution itself.
Few Americans, however, would defend their country's record as perfect. American democracy is in a constant state of evolution. As Americans review their history, they recognize errors of performance and failures to act, which have delayed the nation's progress. They know that more mistakes will be made in the future.
Yet the U.S. government still represents the people, and is dedicated to the preservation of liberty. The right to criticize the government guarantees the right to change it when it strays from the essential principles of the Constitution. So long as the preamble to the Constitution is heeded, the republic will stand. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."
The Bill of Rights______________________
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH___________
THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH__________
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH______________